If you’ve sensed God’s call on your life to Christian ministry, then one of the most crucial decisions you’ll need to make is where – not if – you’ll receive training for ministry. Maybe you’re nearing the end of your undergraduate work and are considering graduate work at a seminary. Or perhaps you’re one of those guys who jumped into the workforce right after high school and started a family, but now you’ve experienced a call to ministry and you know a college degree is what you need to serve God and His church. Whatever your situation, your first step needs to be to commit the next season of your life to getting theologically equipped to do ministry effectively and long-term.
But where will you go to receive that training?
Years ago, as a young pastor in Memphis, Tennessee, I was facing a crucial life decision. I’ll never forget the advice given me by Adrian Rogers, then pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church: “David, when you’re trying to discern God’s will, the first thing to do is to gather all the facts. Once you’ve done that – learned all you can about all the issues involved in the decision – God’s will is usually as clear as the nose on your face.” Over the years I’ve repeatedly observed the wisdom and accuracy of that principle.
I saw this principle at work when our son Stephen had to choose which seminary he would attend. He diligently studied all his options, received wise counsel from godly men he trusted, and prayed. Then he pared down his list to three schools, still praying, but it seemed that no answer was forthcoming. So he decided to visit each of the three campuses, where he met professors, administrators and students. He got the “feel” of each school and of the city where it was located. Most importantly, he asked key questions, which gave him a very clear sense of which seminary God was leading him to attend.
The choice of a seminary or Bible college is an important one, not to be taken lightly, as most people know. What they’re not sure of, however, is what they need to know – what areas to investigate and discover about different seminaries – as they approach this choice.
Over the years I’ve talked to scores of men and women about this choice. In my opinion, here are the ten most crucial areas you need to check out and evaluate before deciding which school to attend:
1. Ministry opportunities
Will opportunities be available for you to pastor or serve on a church staff in the area? Larger metropolitan areas provide more ministry opportunities than smaller towns. Also, you’ll want to take into consideration how many other Christian colleges and seminaries are in the area. It’s possible for the “ministry job market” to become saturated with so many students that finding a position may be all but impossible.
2. Instructional Excellence
Whatever seminary you choose, you’re trusting that their faculty will have the knowledge, teaching acumen, academic credentials, and motivational skills to equip you for effective ministry for the rest of your life. That’s a weighty responsibility for them. But you’re the one who has to make the call whether or not a school’s faculty can meet your expectations. So ask yourself:
When you sat in on some classes, did you get the feeling you could really learn from these professors if you were their student?
Do all the faculty members have their degrees from the same one or two schools, or have they earned their doctorates from a broad range of evangelical schools? The latter ensures a breadth and depth of respected scholarship not possible with the former.
Maybe you’ve identified a specific area of interest – biblical languages, for example – in which you’d like to focus. If so, then find out all you can about the professors who teach in that discipline . Meet with them during a campus visit; ask some questions and then sit back and listen. Do these professors strike you as scholars under whose tutelage you would thrive and grow?
3. Denominational Affiliation
Here’s an important issue you need to think through, if you haven’t already. Do you sense God leading you to do ministry within, or identified with, a specific denomination? If the answer is no, then my simple advice is to allow the Holy Spirit to guide your choice of seminaries based on the other nine concerns I’ll identify.
But if the answer is yes, then you need to find out what your denomination expects of its ministers regarding theological education. Some denominations require their ministers to attend one of their “approved” seminaries in order to be ordained. If so, then your choice of seminaries might be easier than you anticipated, albeit quite limited. Other denominations – Southern Baptists, for example – do not require seminary of their ministers. Yet those who sense a call to ministry are strongly encouraged to seek theological training from a seminary sponsored by the denomination, thus ensuring doctrinal soundness as well as an understanding on the part of its graduates of how the denomination works.
4. Well-Respected Accreditation
Almost every college and seminary will tell you they are accredited. And maybe they are. But the question to ask is whether the agency providing their accreditation is one of the few that’s legitimate, highly respected, and who can ensure that your years of study are not wasted. Here’s a list of the top regional accrediting agencies whose names you need to look for:
North Central Association of Colleges and Schools
Southern Association of Colleges and Schools
Western Association of Schools and Colleges
Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools
New England Association of Schools and Colleges
Northwest Accreditation Commission
The Association of Theological Schools (ATS) is another respected agency that accredits graduate level schools only – seminaries, for example. Choosing a school with legitimate accreditation credentials means your credits transfer, and your degree will be accepted by another school if you ever want to continue your education.
5. Economic Feasibility
Simply put, can you afford a degree from this school? Make sure you factor in:
Tuition: by far the largest cost you’ll be looking at, and one which varies significantly, depending on the school. For example, Southern Baptist churches underwrite theological education for its ministers to the tune of around $10,000 annually per student, drastically reducing tuition costs.
Additional fees: technology fees, registration fees, etc. These can add up quickly; some schools “fee you” to death, almost equaling tuition costs.
The cost of living in the geographical region where the school is located, unless you’re doing an online degree. Factor in rent, which is usually cheaper if campus housing is available.
What types of jobs will be available? Ask for a list of local employers who like to hire students from each school.
Pay as you go, if at all possible. But if you know you’re going to have to borrow money for your education, do it as cheaply as possible. Some schools offer federal student aid – Pell Grants for college students (money you don’t have to pay back), as well as low-interest student loans, which you will have to repay once you’ve left school. Find out what your options are.
6. Sense of God’s Approval
Getting all the information you can is vital, but you need to immerse this decision in prayer. Ask God to give you a sense of peace regarding your choice.
I personally visited five seminaries when I was trying to decide where to go to earn a Master of Divinity degree. As I walked across the campus of one of those schools during my visit, I felt a strong conviction, which I believed was from the Holy Spirit, that this was the school God had prepared and chosen for me. Over the next three years there were many times I wanted to go home or transfer to another school. But the memory of that moment when God gave me a sense of His approval about coming to that particular school kept me there. I received a great education, and God worked mightily in my life during those years. It was exactly the crucible He had chosen in which to refine and strengthen my faith in Him.
7. Theological Soundness
Maybe you’ve heard stories of individuals who entered seminary with a strong, vibrant faith, but by the time they left, their confidence in God’s Word was badly shaken by liberal teaching. Believe me – those stories are true; I’ve witnessed them. But seminary should be a place where professors committed to theological orthodoxy challenge students to mine the truths of God’s Word, thus equipping students to defend the Bible’s utter reliability. Here’s the question to pose, “Does every faculty member affirm the doctrine of biblical inerrancy?” Unless you get a firm and unqualified, “Yes,” look for another school.
8. Educational Fit
Do the degrees offered by the school fit what you need? Study the academic catalog carefully; it’s the final authority regarding degrees offered, courses required for each, etc. Do they offer only on-campus courses, or some online courses as well, or some online degrees? Generally speaking, having some flexibility in how coursework can be “delivered” (on-campus, online, etc.) is good. If you’ll be seeking a fairly specialized degree for a specific profession – counseling, for example – make sure the degree you’ll be earning will give you the credentials you’re going to need.
Bottom line: Find the school that fits you and offers the degree you want.
9. Recommendations of Trusted Mentors
Listening to people who are older, wiser, or who’ve traveled the path you’re about to take is incredibly astute. Listen to Proverbs 1:5, “Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance.”
Let me strongly urge you to ask for advice from three sources. First, ask your pastor which schools he might recommend that you consider. Second, get input from your parents, if they’re still in the picture. (Even though I was 22 years old, I asked my parents for their advice regarding seminary. It ended up being invaluable, because they noticed things I had totally missed.) Third, reach out to any friends who are currently in seminary or who recently graduated, and ask for their thoughts on which schools you should look at, as well as which ones to avoid.
10. Needs of Your Family
Simply put, will getting an education at this school be good or bad for your family? For example:
Will this be a safe place for your family to live? Check crime statistics for the neighborhood.
Is on-campus housing available? Usually it’s a bit more affordable to live on campus than in the surrounding neighborhood, plus you and your spouse will build friendships with other students living in campus housing. It’s amazing how close you get to other families when you watch each other’s kids, cook out together in the evening, or just hang out together.
Are the schools your kids will attend places where they’ll get a good education and be safe?
If anyone in your family has special medical needs, will you be in a city with adequate medical care?
How far will you be from extended family? While it shouldn’t be a deal-breaker for you, it’s not a bad thing to have some relatives nearby.
Let me close by saying a word about the wonderful institution where I teach. God has granted me the incredible privilege of serving on the faculty at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, located in Kansas City, Missouri. Every one of our professors enthusiastically embraces the doctrine of biblical inerrancy and has committed to teach within the theological boundaries of The Baptist Faith and Message 2000, the doctrinal confession of faith adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention. Our seminary is fully owned by and accountable to the local churches of that great denomination. Historically, Southern Baptists have strongly believed that their ministers should be theologically educated. Thus, their congregations give sacrificially to support Midwestern and the other five SBC seminaries, enabling us to keep tuition rates remarkably low.
The next few years of your life will be crucial. You’re about to make one of the biggest decisions of your life. Let me strongly encourage you to add Midwestern to your list of campuses to visit as you pray through which theological institution you’ll entrust with your preparation for Christian ministry.